Monday, April 12, 2021

Shenmue Theory: Sakuragaoka's Best-Kept Secret | Guest Post by James Brown

Back in 2019, I discovered in Shenmue something truly special and mind-blowing to myself that again proved that Shenmue is more than just a game. Admiring its breath-taking detail led me to discover a seasonal change that only a handful of people would ever realistically discover. In Japan, at the turn of spring cherry blossom season springs into life, bringing picturesque cherry trees into bloom with their sakura blossoms that are certainly a showstopper. And this is also the case in the game, with the Hazuki Residence’s Cherry Tree going through a gradual transformation over a number of weeks, as blossoms begin to bloom, eventually leading to a spectacular display.

The petals then start to fall, leaving them scattered on the ground, another fantastic detail.

This whole process can be considered a bit of a metaphor it seems, as Ryo is warned of time running out on his quest just before the blossoms start to dwindle - “When the cherry blossoms fall, the dragon shall descend on you” - and when the tree’s life cycle is finished so is Ryo’s, as Lan Di returns to the Dojo with the knowledge of the second mirror; in the process dealing Ryo the same devastating blow he performed on Ryo’s father at the start of the game and taking the Phoenix Mirror. This scene makes a point of showing the Cherry Tree at the end of its life cycle.

This date in the game is around the middle of April, a time which only an extremely… extremely… extremely slow player would reach - or someone deliberately taking advantage of the day skip (even doing this, the player would need to halt the day skips and continue to waste a day at a time as the tree reaches its full bloom).

The above information may not be new to you diehard Shenmue fans out there today - but over the last week, whilst working on the next release of the Suka Pass app with Switch, I had a bit of an epiphany that I’m looking forward to sharing with you today. I would love to hear your opinions!

At the time of discovering the Cherry Tree blossoming at the Hazuki Residence, I was also curious as to whether anywhere else in the game showed these Spring seasonal changes. One area I wanted to specifically check was Sakuragaoka, as this literally has “sakura” in its name! I excitedly headed over to this area, and started to hunt around, right through to the park… but was unfortunately not greeted by any changes in the game.

I thought no more of this, and just assumed that the Hazuki Cherry Tree was the only tree to show such a change.

Now, fast forward to the point of today’s blog post.

Over the course of working on the above-mentioned Suka Pass application (a faithful recreation of Shenmue’s online counterpart, the Passport), various features have been added. One of these features, which is available in the app right now, is the “Places” section. This features a wealth of detailed information about every nook and cranny of Shenmue’s world and all of its locations. At the time of designing this section, there were some interesting profiles attached to Sakuragaoka that once again had me thinking about more hidden secrets in Shenmue’s world.

To start with, here is the profile that describes the general area of Sakuragaoka:

"Sakuragaoka, meaning 'Cherry Tree Hill' in Japanese, is famous for its cherry blossoms since ancient times. Cherry trees once covered the entire mountain and gave the area its name. They still remain in places, putting on a delightful display for the residents with the arrival of spring".

And this is the description of Sakuragaoka Park:

"Once an open space halfway up the mountain that was a resting spot for the people making their way up the mountain. During the residential development of Sakuragaoka it was left as a park. Now, for those in the know, it is the foremost cherry blossom viewing spot in Sakuragaoka. Always lively, it serves as a playground for children, a place for housewives to exchange gossip and a place of relaxation for the elderly.

Often visited by people such as Yamagishi-san, Mayumi Mishima and Yuji Hirano. Training can be carried out here when there is nobody around.

It is a memorable location where a significant event takes place with Nozomi."

With the heavy emphasis in the text on the Spring and Cherry Trees, this had me wondering if I had merely missed something in my hunt for blossom, and so I again went on another more thorough search at the in-game tail end of March and early April, but as before found no change within this area. Thinking nothing more of it, I put these thoughts to the very back of the dusty section of my brain (the majority of my brain haha!).

That was until recently.

The next upcoming feature to Suka Pass is something I’m really excited about, and it’s where my aforementioned epiphany was made!

One section of the original Passport was “Nozomi’s Messages,” where Nozomi would give the player clues and information linked to the part of the story they were currently at. These snippets of Shenmue lore have recently been translated by Switch for the purposes of restoring this section to Suka Pass so that everyone can enjoy this lost and forgotten content.

One of the pieces of information from Nozomi is again about Sakuragaoka. Here is that translated piece:

“Sakuragaoka is well-known around here as a good place for cherry blossom viewing. But I don't tell anyone because I want to keep it my own private cherry blossom viewing spot. It's really beautiful. The whole hill is covered with cherry blossoms. Whenever spring comes, I always wish I lived in Sakuragaoka.”

Whilst reading this in bed at around 3am, something suddenly hit me. Both this and the previous pieces of Sakuragaoka lore speak of a hill which cherry blossoms cover…I suddenly put two and two together and recalled a previous post from Switch about the road past Sumiya-san’s house leading to an unknown area…

Before we continue, please check out the post above if you haven’t seen it already, as it should bring more context to my personal theory based on these recent discoveries.

Traces of this unknown area were first noted by a fan examining the topology of Sakuragaoka thanks to tools developed by LemonHaze, a guy who’s slowly becoming etched into Shenmue folklore for his recent amazing contributions to the community. In case you aren’t familiar, Lemon has been discovering interesting tidbits within the games files (like a giant Lucky Hit board) whilst working hard away on the fantastic Dragon & Phoenix Collection project. Lemon’s other recent work includes his work with Paddy on bringing back Eric Kelso and Paul Lucas’s voice talent as they reprise their original Shenmue 1 and 2 characters in Shenmue 3.

As shown in the post, this overview map contains a large unused area that completely overlooks Sakuragaoka at the top of a hill… which could qualify as a mountain.

“Cherry trees once covered the entire mountain…”

Now, this could be considered a theory, but this would lead me to personally believe that this removed beta area could have been an area full of cherry trees. Not only are there cherry blossoms specified in Sakuragaoka, but we also have mention that they once covered the mountain. 

My brain, ticking into overdrive and blowing away some of the surrounding dust, then triggered a memory of an early piece of footage shown before Shenmue was released of Ryo sitting under a Cherry Tree. This can be found as part of a presentation with Yu Suzuki at Shenmue’s Premiere event in 1998 – of which is accessible to view on the Dreamcast Express Vol. 1 GD-ROM. Take a look at this extract below:

Is it just me, or does that resemble a large open mountainous area full of cherry trees in blossom...on top of a hill?! Could this be a match to the missing removed beta area…perhaps ending up being used for demo purposes only? Whilst I wasn’t the first to discover the blooming Cherry Tree at the Hazuki Residence, it brought it to a lot of people’s attention, and really cherry trees in bloom were actually right under our noses this entire time! I’m surprised it took all this time to really make the connection. Yet again, another layer of insane detail from the game that keeps on giving…Shenmue.

So what do you think? Do you agree with me that perhaps this removed area from Sakuragaoka is the one shown in the clip above? 

If so, why do you think this area was removed? Could it have been too intensive on the Dreamcast’s graphical processing, with dozens of trees all constantly dropping petals in unison? Or maybe they realized that because of the date the game starts and takes place, it would serve no purpose until April  and no one would realistically see these trees in bloom? Do you think we’ll ever get to experience this area one day, perhaps in an unearthed demo or prototype build? – I would personally love to walk around this environment!

Whatever the case may be, I seriously believe that all of this connects together: from the Passport lore about Sakuragaoka, to the large hilltop area in the beta map, to the alpha footage of Ryo sitting under a tree in a large open area…do we have a match?!

Thanks for following me on yet another Shenmue journey, I hope you’ve enjoyed this post! Please let me know your thoughts and opinions!

Many thanks again to Switch for welcoming me back to his wonderful website. A pleasure as always!

With the clues laid out like that, it makes for a compelling theoryIt is a delight to host another guest post from SkillJim on the blog.

Here is a following selection of SkillJim's past guest posts which I highly recommend:

You can also head over to SkillJim YouTube channel where James has a heap more great videos on Shenmue, SEGA games and merchandise and more. Subscribe to keep up with new videos as they are released!


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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Another thing to consider:
    Why do the kids go that far (for their age) to get to school?
    Most turn right at the bus stop but others take the bus, which implies they're going beyond Dobuita.

    It might've been a technical consideration to avoid too many NPCs in the same area on that narrow Sakuragaoka path...

    It's not out of the realm of possibilities to render an elementary school and having them fade-out once inside. The big factor - which you mentioned - is making the lush cherry tree surroundings in a convincing manner, while maintaining 30fps.
    It may have also been too much to have more than one tree changing with the Seasons...

    Of course, all of this is speculation (which naturally, there's MUCH of, around this project), but we gotta consider even the most "out there" stuff, since the original ambitions were just as crazy, even by today's standards/technology (more about robust code rather than raw power).

    That being said, I have "another one":
    Let's suppose there was a Suka High, up on the hill. And let's suppose that the game would start before November-December. So instead of having them đŸŽ”walking around downtownđŸŽ” (during entrance exams), you'd have all of Ryo's friends, the Enoki gang, and some miscellaneous girls attending Highschool, which is even more then the Elementary kids -- it'd be even more taxing on the system...
    And the cut-scene and dialogue with Nozomi regarding the entrance exams wouldn't have to be cut, just take place later in the story.

    Let me know if there're inconsistencies on this thesis, 'cause that's what it may become if I carry on...

    1. Ideas which may have been once been unthinkable due to technical limitations, may no longer be pipe dreams thanks to projects like the Dragon & Phoenix Collection. It would be fun to see other kids into the school building while Ryo is intent on hunting down Lan Di!